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It’s past time for Princeton to advocate for Native students

<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

Monday, Oct. 12, was Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In honor of the Native inhabitants of the land that is currently known as the United States of America and in acknowledgment of the reality that Princeton’s campus occupies unceded Lenape homelands, a small group of students, faculty, and staff launched the Indigenous Studies website. For the first time, Princeton University has a dedicated virtual space for Indigenous scholarship, teaching, and research.

Having been one of the students who worked tirelessly on the site for the past six months, I crafted a feel-good story about the site, as well as the campus-wide conversations that it represents. To my great excitement — and that of website collaborators, Keely Toledo ’22 (Navajo Nation); Sarah Malone, communications and events manager for the Program in American Studies; and Sarah Rivett, professor of English and American studies — the Office of Communications expressed willingness to publish the story on the University homepage.

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But it was pulled at the last minute. When we inquired about why the story was pulled, we were told that the main University channels must avoid anything that looks like advocacy. But the article made no mention of advocating for a certificate program. It simply described the growing Indigenous studies community. You can read it here.

Nonetheless, as the president of Natives at Princeton (along with Toledo) and a founding member of the Princeton Indigenous Advocacy Coalition, I experienced this institutional rejection as an all-too-familiar silencing of Indigenous perspectives and experiences. To advocate is to support, and on this front, it is abundantly clear that Princeton University needs to do better.

A recent article in The Daily Princetonian shows that Princeton lags far beyond its peers in resources for Native students, including recruitment, designated staff, academic and residential space, and the structure of an academic program. A community of scholars, teachers, and students cannot create these structures. Without administrative support — indeed, even advocacy — our work is devalued and made invisible.

Native American and Indigenous studies exist on campus. We are a vibrant community of faculty, students, and staff, recently designated the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton (NAISIP). Our community consists of almost 50 affiliated faculty, staff, and students, and the list is growing. Each semester, five to 10 courses are taught on Indigenous topics. Senior theses and junior papers are written on Native American and Indigenous topics every year, even without Indigenous studies departmental support and guidance. Faculty, staff, and students hail from more than 20 academic units across the University, and research and teaching about Indigenous peoples spans six continents. The push for Indigenous studies at Princeton is backed by more than 100 faculty, students, staff, and alumni.

Spearheaded by Professor Rivett and developed in collaboration with Lambert, Toledo, Malone, and Lockhart, NAISIP responds to recent pushes by student groups for greater Indigenous representation and institutional support. Rivett said she initiated the effort in the hope that it might address “the problem that, for many years, research and events on campus pertaining to Indigenous peoples were scattered across departments and other units. There was little sense of community among such individuals, partly because of the great difficulty of even identifying one another.”

Tiffany (Cain) Fryer, lecturer in the Council of the Humanities and the Department of Anthropology, and a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Princeton Society of Fellows, sees the new website as an opportunity to centralize what work is being done on campus toward developing Indigenous studies and supporting Indigenous students.

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In a conversation, she noted, “It’s especially important now, in light of President Eisgruber’s declared recommitment to diversity and inclusion efforts at Princeton, that the University not relegate its Indigenous community members and Indigenous studies to the statistical margins.”

In recent years, Natives at Princeton has built community and educated Princetonians about Native and Indigenous identity through campus events. Supported by the PACE Center for Civic Engagement, the Princeton Indigenous Advocacy Coalition was formed to address the lack of institutional support for Native students on campus. A graduate student-led group, the Princeton American Indian and Indigenous Studies Working Group (PAIISWG), has served as a hub for graduate students and faculty from Princeton and beyond who work on Native American and Indigenous Studies topics. The newly formed Native American Alumni of Princeton group serves not only as a place for connections and community-building, but is also working closely with students to push for augmented support for Native students.

It’s clear that students and alumni are at the forefront of this push — but it isn’t our job to make sure the University is adequately supporting us. We shouldn’t have to be the ones to hold the University accountable for the gaping hole of support for Native students. The sum of our efforts can’t substitute for institutional acknowledgment and support.

Standing up for Native students does not just mean rhetoric or symbolic representation. Princeton students and faculty yearn for a dedicated space to come together and develop our growing and vibrant community. Princeton needs to dedicate institutional support, specifically funding, physical space, staff, and faculty, to ensure that this community and this field flourish.

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The University has the capacity to become a leader in Native higher education. With phenomenal financial aid and an unmatched commitment to undergraduate education, Princeton has far exceeded my expectations in more ways than I can express. Native alumni have gone on to do incredible work both inside and outside of Indian Country.

But the lack of institutional support drives away many prospective Native students, robbing them of the benefits of a Princeton education and depriving many non-Native students of the educational and social benefits that come from learning in a community with Native students. Princeton has the capacity and obligation to make our University a more welcoming and supportive place for Native students.

Jessica Lambert is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation and a member of the Class of 2022 in the Department of Anthropology from Chapel Hill, N.C. She can be contacted at jessicalambert@princeton.edu.

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